Sometimes it’s the most original films that borrow the most. When directors cast their net wide, fusing inspirations from sundry unexpected places, the results can be magically fresh and exciting.
In the context of most other cinema releases this winter, Robert Eggers’ nautical horror fable The Lighthouse is a very strange fish indeed. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers manning an isolated beacon off the coast of Maine, it’s the only film you’ll see shot in the bygone 1.19:1 aspect ratio, surely the only black-and-white genre film, and – most certainly – the only film that plays like an eerie distress signal from some godforsaken corner of the 19th century.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
But that’s not to say that The Lighthouse doesn’t have precedents. Indeed, when we met Eggers on dry land, on the occasion of the film’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival, his chat ranged eagerly over many diverse influences – all of which sparked something that fed into the project. “We can get into M.R. James and Lovecraft and the like,” he suggests, “and theatrical influences, like Pinter and Sam Shepard and people who do these great two-handers.”
“The Pinter-Losey collaborations were certainly on my mind,” he continued, talking of films such as The Servant (1963), while “Bergman’s always on my mind. Always on my mind.”
Here are some of the other sources that came together to fuel this gaslit fever dream.
Eggers: My brother said that he was working on a screenplay about a ghost in a lighthouse. I thought that was a great idea. I pictured more or less the first meal with Rob and Willem: not the dialogue and not the setup, but the look and the atmosphere and the smell and the black-and-white 35 millimetre negative and all of that. That’s what came first. Then we were trying to find a story that would match that. Edgar Allan Poe has an unfinished work called ‘The Light-House.’ And it might have been good. It probably would have been.
The writings of Sarah Orne Jewett
Eggers: We were looking at Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson trying to figure out sentence structures of the time. Taking turns of phrase, and jotting them down. There’s many other sources that we used, but the most helpful in doing the final passes and really adding clarity and specificity and accuracy was the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, who was a Maine-based author who was writing in the period that the film takes place.
She was interviewing sailors and sea captains and farmers and writing her stories in dialect phonetically. This was gold for us. And so, I started getting into Sarah Orne Jewett and trying to understand the syntax and sentence structure. Then my wife found someone who did their dissertation on Sarah Orne Jewett’s use of dialect. So they had done all the work and laid it out. For Rob’s dialect, for example, there’s a vowel sound that’s omitted and he would switch these two words consistently in his dialect.
Willem has a few sentences here and there intact from Sarah Orne Jewett. But, thanks to The Witch and some other things, I can also write in a rummy, faux Shakespearean, faux Miltonian way for his sea curses and whatnot.
The Dardenne brothers
Eggers: I’m a big lover of Béla Tarr, but the incessant winds in The Lighthouse aren’t so much an homage to him – that’s just happens when you’re shooting on a desolate rock in Nova Scotia in the North Atlantic! At the same time, the Dardenne brothers were an inspiration: their work is incredible. The way they use the camera is not at all how I do it with Jarin [Blaschke, cinematographer], but their thinking about the physicality of the body in The Son (2002) was in my mind with Rob’s work.
Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst’s mining drama Kameradschaft (1931)
Eggers: Late in the game, we were double-checking that we felt confident about the 1.19:1 aspect ratio. So we were watching a few more movies in that realm. We’re very familiar with Fritz Lang, and Jarin and I loved that he has these crazy, complicated camera moves and the camera equipment isn’t quite good enough to handle them. We felt that with our budget and gear, we have some of the same handmade quality. I don’t know how much of a direct influence it is, but our movie and Kameradschaft (1931) by G.W. Pabst are the only films in which the aspect ratio serves the story, because that takes place in a mine. Pabst is shooting vertical smokestacks, and the cramped locations in the mine.
Maritime films by Jean Grémillon and Jean Epstein
Eggers: The nautical films of Jean Epstein and Jean Grémillon, set in Brittany, were very influential. We give a nod to the image in Grémillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers (1929) of the son who is bitten by the rabid dog, looking at the light. We do it as an overhead zoom shot – the one zoom in the movie. We do pay homage to that. But, on the other hand, like Béla Tarr’s wind, that is what the light does in a lighthouse. When Jarin and I went to a real lighthouse with a Fresnel lens in northern California, we were just hypnotised looking at the light. It’s amazing, you know.
John Huston’s gold-prospecting adventure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Eggers: I like John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), but I don’t know how much we got out of it. But his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was on the mind. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but we were having a hard time figuring out how Rob’s character was going to talk. For the first version in which the character had any kind of personality, we were thinking about Humphrey Bogart and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. We knew that was not the character and that he’s never going to be like that in the end, but our first way in was with that character. Finally, we had something to hold on to.